Americans are living longer than ever before, living with chronic pain and suffering that might not, at least for some, make that life worth living.
Americans are living longer than ever before, living with chronic pain and suffering that might not, at least for some, make that life worth living. The example of Admiral Nimitz and his wife, for example, is one of two people of sound mind choosing to end their lives.
Can suicide be morally justified in such circumstances, or do people have an obligation to continue living?
Defend your position. If you believe people have an obligation to continue living, where does it come from? To whom is that obligation owed? If you believe that suffering justifies suicide in old age, what other contexts are there in which you think suicide is morally justifiable?
The ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia are squarely before the public eye. A steady drumbeat of media attention and mounting concern about control at life's end have generated serious consideration of legalizing the practices. Public discussion has centered on the desire for control over the timing and manner of death, amidst warnings about the potential abuse or harm of overriding society's long-standing prohibitions against assisting suicide or directly causing another person's death. Concurrent with this public debate, but in many ways separate from it, has been the discussion of assisted suicide and euthanasia in the medical and ethical literature. In this debate, some assert that both assisted suicide and euthanasia are morally wrong and should not be provided, regardless of the circumstances of the particular case. Others hold that assisted suicide or euthanasia are ethically legitimate in rare and exceptional cases, but that professional standards and the law should not be changed to authorize either practice. Finally, some advocate that assisted suicide, or both assisted suicide and euthanasia, should be recognized as legally and morally acceptable options in the care of dying or severely ill patients.(1) An Historical Perspective For thousands of years, philosophers and religious thinkers have addressed the ethics of suicide. These debates have rested on broad principles about duties to self and to society as well as fundamental questions of the value of human life. Many great thinkers of Western intellectual history have contributed to this -------------------------------------------------------------------- (1) Through most of this chapter, arguments are schematically presented as those of "proponents" of legalizing assistcd suicide and euthanasia and "opponents" of legalizing these practices. Each category groups together diverse views in order to provide an overview of a debate marked by complex and nuanced positions.
WHEN DEATH IS SOUGHT debate, ranging from Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, and Locke, Hume, and Kant in more modern times.(2) Some views and practices surrounding suicide were rooted in particular cultures and beliefs that have little relevance for contemporary society. For example, in the warrior society of the Vikings, only those who died violently could enter paradise, or Valhalla. The greatest honor was death in battle; suicide was the second best alternative.(3) Likewise, the ancient Scythians believed that suicide was a great honor when individuals became too old for their nomadic way of life, thereby sparing the younger members of the tribe the burden of carrying or killing them. In other eras and civilizations, the debate about suicide touched on values that influenced the course of Western thought and still resonate to contemporary perspectives on suicide. The word "euthanasia" derives from Greek, although as used in ancient Greece, the term meant simply "good death," not the practice of killing a person for benevolent motives.(4) In ancient Greece, euthanasia was not practiced, and suicide itself was generally disfavored.(5) Some Greek philosophers, however, argued that suicide would be acceptable under exceptional circumstances. Plato, for example, believed that suicide was generally cowardly and unjust but that it could be an ethically acceptable act if an individual had an immoral and incorrigible character, had committed a disgraceful action, or had lost control over his or her actions due to grief or suffering.